Social Neuroscience and Pharmacology
Our studies investigate how hormones and neurotransmitters are involved in social behaviors and related psychiatric disorders, mainly in autism spectrum disorders. We have in previous human genetics studies shown associations between oxytocin genes and social behaviors relevant for individuals with autism e.g., emotion recognition, social memory, pair-bonding behavior and aggression. In experimental studies using humans, mice and zebrafish, we have revealed that oxytocin is relevant for behaviors seen in individuals with autism. In our on-going research, we use pharmacological, neuroanatomicial and behavioral studies in transgenic and mutant zebrafish to investigate the development of the social brain and social behavior.
Social behaviours are crucial for the both the survival and propagation of most species. Social deficits and impairments in social development are prominent in many neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Furthermore, the neuropeptide oxytocin as well as the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin are known to regulate sociability in humans and other mammals.
Advantages of zebrafish
The experimental animal model species zebrafish (Danio rerio) holds advantages for research on autism and social behaviors. Zebrafish is a vertebrate that possess high genetic homology with humans, an evolutionarily conserved brain and is commonly used for developmental studies of brain function. Zebrafish are also highly social, and are mainly relying on their vision (rather than on olfaction as is the case for rodents) when they interact with each other.
The main goals of our current research are to use zebrafish to characterize the molecular and neuronal mechanisms in the development of sociability and to identify drugs enhancing oxytocin production. We hope that the project will substantially increase the current knowledge about the early development of the social brain. Most likely, these are the processes that are altered in infants that later develops autism. Furthermore, our drug screen approach using larval zebrafish has great potential to find drug molecules that may relieve social problems experienced by individuals with autism, and their families.
- Lars Westberg, Professor, Principal Investigator
- Pierre Cronell, PhD student
- Noor Hassan, PhD student
- Debora Dreher Nabinger, Postdoctor
- Märta Blide, Amanuensis
- Geoffrey Aliti, Research assistant
- Lindsay Zentveld Einarsson, Biomedical scientist